The NASCAR Hall of Fame opened to great fanfare this past weekend in Charlotte, N.C., as the long-awaited tribute to the history of our sport inducted its inaugural members. The personalities and names chosen for the opening of the Hall of Fame were well done so with due diligence – the founder of the sport, Bill France Sr., his son Bill France Jr. who helped transcend the sport from a regional underground series to national prominence.
The two most successful drivers in NASCAR’s history were selected for obvious reasons – seven titles a piece for Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, both having been the standard bearers as the face of NASCAR as it transitioned from the Sports Page to the Front Page during the heights of their respective careers. Junior Johnson embodied the history and folklore of NASCAR as both a driver, owner, and as author Tom Wolfe deemed him, “The Last American Hero” – which would eventually become the inspiration for a motion picture.
With the first class having been seated, the talk has quickly turned to which five individuals will be honored for the next round of inductees. The popular suggestions that have been mentioned, read in order of the all-time wins column. David Pearson would be a logical choice with three championships and 105 wins, the prospects of somebody – even Jimmie Johnson or Kyle Busch – matching or eclipsing sounds hopeful at best. Cale Yarborough won three consecutive championships before No. 48 did, and is fifth on the all-time wins list with 83 – that is until Jeff Gordon notches one more win. Bobby Allison made a career of doing more with less until his career was cut short at the tender age of 50 in a wreck that nearly claimed his life at Pocono in 1988.
All are worthy candidates, but there is one name that has not been mentioned, that remains conspicuously absent – one of the pioneers of NASCAR, and founder of the organization that to this day still owns the record for most wins and championships – Lee Petty.
Some may recognize Petty from winning the first Daytona 500 in a photo finish with Johnny Beauchamp, by way of a grainy black and white photograph that took three days to sort out. The other is the color 8mm movie of him sailing out of the Fourth Turn at Daytona in his blue 1961 Plymouth – coincidently along with Beauchamp during a qualifying race, suffering injuries that would eventually put an end to his driving career.
During his time behind the wheel, Lee Petty piloted Plymouths, Dodges, Chryslers and Oldsmobiles to 54 wins – which still rank ninth on the all-time list, as well as three Cup championships over the course of 16 years. Throw in pair of wins in NASCAR’s Convertible Series, and he’s as high as eighth all time. While those statistics have him head of Jimmie Johnson in wins – but one short on titles – the patriarch of the Petty clan helped serve to set the standard for racing operations, turning them from a car in a barn, to treating racing as a business.
For Lee Petty, racing wasn’t a hobby – it was his livelihood. Junior Johnson might have had his liquor business to fall back on, but that was something Petty would not abide by; if you remember, no Petty Enterprises car even carried the Busch or Bud Pole award logo on their cars – alcohol was not something celebrated amongst the Pettys on their racecars. It even kept John Andretti out of the Bud Shootout in 1998.
While he may have had to hang up the helmet after that accident at Daytona (save for a handful of starts over the next few years), Lee was still an influential member and force within the company that bore his name – Lee Petty Engineering had become Petty Enterprises. With his sons Richard behind the wheel and Maurice massaging their Mopar motors, Petty Enterprises would go on to score seven more Cup championships for a total of 10, and ultimately record 268 victories by the time the operation was scuttled in 2009.
To put that in perspective, Hendrick Motorsports has nine Cup titles and 191 victories. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is really going to have to step things up if they plan on passing ol’ Lee.
For 2011, NASCAR would do well to induct Lee Petty into the Hall of Fame, for both his roles as driver, team owner and establishing the benchmark for prototypical NASCAR organization. This is not to cast aspirations on any of the drivers who will likely receive their honor next year – or even the following when they are rightfully recognized by the Hall of Fame for their achievements and contribution to the sport.
I understand that it makes sense to induct those who are still alive to receive their reward before they go to it, and am on board with whomever they end up selecting of the next four drivers in line, or even somebody a little farther down the list like Ned Jarrett. Perhaps NASCAR needs to have a posthumously awarded Hall of Fame recognition as well for those who have since passed, but still left their impression on the sport.
The operation that Lee Petty founded set records and marks that still stand to this day, some of which will not be broken for many years to come.